Pope Lifts Spirits, Not Attendance, U.S. Poll Says ; 'Francis Effect' Appears to Transform Catholics' Attitudes, but Not Actions

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Despite his popularity, Pope Francis has not inspired more Americans to attend Mass, go to confession or identify as Catholic, a study has found.

One year into the era of Pope Francis, a new poll has found that a broad majority of American Catholics say he represents a major change in direction for the Roman Catholic Church, and a change for the better. But his popularity has not inspired more Americans to attend Mass, go to confession or identify as Catholic -- a finding that suggests that so far, the much-vaunted "Francis effect" is influencing attitudes, but not behavior.

Francis is more popular among American Catholics than Pope Benedict XVI was in February of last year, when he suddenly resigned, according to the poll, which was released on Thursday by the Pew Research Center. But Francis has not reached the lofty ratings that Pope John Paul II commanded at the height of his papacy in the 1990s, when he was credited with helping to bring down the Communist government in his native country, Poland.

Francis, who draws giddy teenagers to his Wednesday audiences and generates Twitter traffic with every public remark, has clearly invigorated the church. But the poll finds that Francis has raised expectations of significant change, even though he has intimated that he may not alter the church's positions on thorny doctrinal issues.

Nearly six in 10 American Catholics in the poll said they expected the church would definitely or probably lift its prohibition on birth control by the year 2050, while half said the church would allow priests to marry. Four in 10 said it would ordain women as priests, and more than two-thirds said it would recognize same-sex marriages by 2050. Large majorities of American Catholics said they wanted the church to change on the first three matters, and half wanted the church to recognize same-sex marriages.

"Right now, because he's still relatively fresh in his position, people are taking his signals seriously," said Mark J. Rozell, acting dean of the school of public policy at George Mason University, who studies the role of the Catholics in American politics. "But that doesn't mean those changes are necessarily going to happen."

After Benedict stepped down, 70 percent of American Catholics identified "addressing the sex abuse scandal" as the priority for the new pope. …

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